When I was growing up, having a dominant center was an automatic berth in “the championship discussion.” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, et cetera, were always going to make their team a challenger. These days, things have changed.
Though I have pondered this progression for years, it really hit home to me on Monday night while watching the woeful New Jersey Nets and their 2-29 record play the Thunder. The game came on while I was eating dinner, and when the starting line-ups flashed on the screen, I began to ponder how many teams had a better true center than Brook Lopez, New Jersey’s man in the middle. He averages about 19 points and 10 rebounds a game with two blocks which is really, really good. Obviously, Dwight Howard for Orlando is a better player, but beyond that… I blanked. Completely.
My wife tossed out Yao (who is inactive), and the only response I got on Twitter was Tim Duncan (who is a power forward). The research I did on NBA.com told me that Lopez is in the top-4 statistically. Based on efficiency ratings the list goes:
1. Dwight Howard, ORL
2. David Lee, NYK
3. Marc Gasol, MEM
4. Brook Lopez, NJN
5. Al Horford, ATL
Then, by the total of Points, Rebounds, and Assists, the ranks is:
1. Dwight Howard, ORL
2. David Lee, NYK
3. Chris Kaman, LAC
4. Brook Lopez, NJN
5. Al Jefferson, MIN
These rankings floored me. Not only does the worst team in the league feature a big man that, on any given night, is probably better than the person manning up against him, most of the best “centers” in the league are power forwards playing out of position. Further, all the teams represented on either of those lists have an aggregate record of 90-121 (buoyed a lot by Howard and Horford).
What happened to the importance of a solid middle?
My theory is that Dirk Nowitzki killed the position. Prior to the seven-foot tall German arriving in the NBA, anyone who measured taller than 6’11” was, by default, taught to stand no further than ten feet from the basket unless setting a screen for a ball handler. Then, Dirk came in and began draining three pointers and handling the ball like a guard, and every giant after him decided they didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a post player.
Players now hate the stigma of being labeled a center. Look at how much money teams have wasted trying to get a “big man” to pair with the perfectly capable big man already on the roster. Dallas is the worst violator in spending close to a billion dollars on seven foot stiffs (Erick Dampier, Desagana Diop, Evan Eschmeyer, Shawn Bradley, and so on and so on) in what The Sports Guy calls “The Mark Cuban Big Man Scholarship Fund.” All those “DNP-Coach’s Decisions” and luxury tax dollars spent simply to keep Dirk Nowitzki from ever having to play the five when they could have spent less to get a perfectly capable power forward to do the same. (Note: The year that Dallas did make it to the NBA Finals, Nowitzki often had to guard the post with the team going small.)
While everyone expects the Mavericks and Mark Cuban to throw bad money after worse, many other teams have done the same. Were the Minnesota Timberwolves really better off with Earvin Johnson clogging up the middle instead of Kevin Garnett? Even the uber-responsible San Antonio Spurs have marched a parade of stiffs next to Tim Duncan for no reason other than being able to call him one of the “best power forwards of all time.”
This mindset of fours and fives being entirely different is so entrenched that many Thunder fans are lobbying for Sam Presti to screw up the team by adopting that antiquated notion. For this team to aspire to greatness, they suggest, he needs to acquire a guy no shorter than 7’0″ tall with the girth of a bull. Whether the guy can keep up with the cavalcade of quicker, more athletic–but marginally shorter–players that are more frequently playing “center” is hardly addressed.
The same people lobbying for a “true” center are often the same people arguing that the Thunder should offer a max contract to Chris Bosh this upcoming Summer so that he can supplant Jeff Green in the starting line-up. Personally, I would love to have a guy as talented as Bosh offensively that can also rebound and defend in the post as well as Bosh. Put him on the floor with Jeff Green and the Thunder are absolutely title contenders, but Bosh would never be satisfied with that dynamic. The thing is, Chris Bosh will punch you in the mouth if you call him the “C” word… even though his style of play suggests he is a finesse center.
Several years ago, when Toronto won the draft lottery and were destined to select Italian small forward Andrea Bargnani, Bosh started lobbying his boss to instead select LaMarcus Aldridge through the media. Bosh wanted a “center” so he could play his “true position.” Of course, Aldridge is another player who, like Bosh, hates the idea of playing the five, but to be the first overall, I’m sure he was telling Chris he’d love to play that role. (Since then, Bargnani has been shifted down two positions to the five so that Bosh could stay in his comfort zone.) Anyway, spending 25% of the cap on a guy who will upgrade a strength position and bristle at doing what is best for the team is probably not a good investment.
Meanwhile, the whole league is salivating at drafting a center like Dwight Howard. Except Dwight Howard, who is a shrimpy 6’11”, was drafted as a power forward and actually played that role early in his career next to the immortal Darko Milicic. Then, unlike K.G., unlike Tim Duncan, unlike Chris Bosh, unlike Amare Stoudamire, and unlike Pau Gasol, he embraced the role he was destined to play. To make room for undersized power forward Rashard Lewis (who has a lot in common with Jeff Green), Howard moved full time to the middle. His game has always lended to the five–he blocks shots, he dominates the glass, and he’s lethal close to the basket–but unlike his contemporaries, instead of trying to develop an inconsistent fade away twenty footer, he worked on honing his back-to-the-basket game.
But what makes him so good is not that he’s bigger and stronger than his opposition, though most of the time that is the case. What makes him so impossible to contain is that he is almost always the most athletic player on the floor, a by product of what initially made him a power forward.
The question now, is how does this information apply to the Oklahoma City Thunder? The answer is Serge Ibaka. Far be it from me to suggest he is going to match the dominance of Dwight Howard, a rare talent, but he does have a lot of similarities. At just 20, Ibaka possesses elite athleticism, adequate height, and a chiseled physique that should only improve as he matures. While he still gets out of position a lot and lacks the feel for when to pass the ball back out to the perimeter, those are traits to be expected from a rookie. His ceiling is off the charts, but attainable considering how much progression he has shown in just 1/3 of an NBA season.
With that team need ready to be filled internally, the Thunder are better off staying put with their post rotation. Ibaka the heir apparent at the five with Nick Collison around for added grit and Byron Mullens available for six fouls in a pinch is an enviable situation. Going all in for a max-type player whose numbers would likely dip playing second banana to Durant would be a waste that would hurt the team’s long term ability to keep the core together.
Instead, the money should be used to fill the shooting void.